If you ask Allison Carsrud when, back in 2013, she knew her family would adopt a 7-year-old boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she’ll tell you it was instantaneous.
“The minute I laid my eyes on him I knew I was adopting him,” Carsrud said of her son, Danny.
“He was the first little guy off the plane, wearing a little Chicago Bears shirt and a backpack full of clothes from the orphanage,” Carsrud said.
Danny was one of six children from the Congo and another five from the Philippines who were the very first to visit Gillette as a part of the Summer of Hope.
Summer of Hope began in Bozeman, Montana, in the early 2000s, through The Sacred Portion Children’s Outreach. It coordinates with the central adoption authority of the sending countries to obtain permission for the children to come, secures necessary background and medical information, and arranges for passports, visas and travel for the children and their escorts.
Summer of Hope, for the kids in various international orphanages, was like an extended vacation. For the families welcoming the kids in Gillette, Summer of Hope was an opportunity to see if they were up to the challenges that come with any adoption.
The Summer of Hope program boasts a 75% success rate. Over 15 summers, a total of 210 children from Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Ethiopia, the Congo and the Philippines have participated in the programs. Of those children, 155 have been or are in the process of being adopted, according to the organization.
Back in 2013, the Carsruds began bonding with Danny as soon as he arrived.
“He came to us only knowing how to play soccer, so we played soccer in our living room until about two in the morning,” Carsrud said. “Hardly any words were spoken.”
She remembers those early days, watching this little boy adjust to a modern world with wonderment in his eyes.
“They didn’t have running water or electricity in the orphanage,” Carsrud said. “He would stand on the stairs and flip the light switch and stare up in amazement. He just couldn’t believe there were lights.”
Something as seemingly mundane as a trip to the grocery store was anything but for him.
“He loved chicken,” Carsrud said. “He would eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner. And bread. He would tap on them, like bags of rolls. That was his way to ask if we could buy them. Rolls and chicken.”
The wonderful aspect of Summer of Hope, namely that it gave the children an extended vacation, was also extremely difficult for parents like Carsrud who knew so quickly that they would adopt the child.
“How do you keep these kids for a month and send them back?” she asked rhetorically.
For her family specifically, it became increasingly difficult to think about the day he returned to the Congo.
“He stayed for a month, we sent him back, and then about a month later, we got word from the Congolese government that adoptions were being suspended,” Carsrud said. “There began a battle that was nearly three years — two years, seven or eight months — before we got him back home. It was incredibly brutal.”
Now Danny has been home for years, and he’s thriving in Gillette. Carsrud gushed over his accomplishments as only a mother can.
“He’s a freshman at CCHS,” she said. “He is an amazing, talented athlete, the starting quarterback for the JV and freshman teams. He plays basketball. He’s incredibly intelligent. He was reading at grade level within a year of being home.”
She said he wins these awards in basketball. One was still in her purse, she said. She rummaged to find it.
“People don’t know him and would watch him on the court … and he got this award like the “Warrior Award” for, like, persevering, and the “Sportsman of the Game with a Never Quit Attitude.”
She paused. Just briefly, but in that moment, she thought about all the difficulties and traumas he’d endured in his young life and the long wait to get him home again.
“I’m like, ‘You don’t even know,’” Carsrud said.
A heart for adoption
Summer of Hope wouldn’t have come to Gillette but for the efforts of Haley Gray. Her family had recently adopted a little boy from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013, and she couldn’t stop thinking about the continued need for adoption there.
“We were open to adoption, and he was so easy to say yes to,” she said of her son, Jenovic. He was 2 years old at the time.
“But I kept thinking about the older ones, the ones that don’t get the easy yes,” she said.
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which tracks international adoptions, has data that goes back to 1999 on its website, and in those two decades, more than 278,000 children have been adopted into the United States from foreign countries. More than 192,900, or almost 70%, of those adoptions were for children 2 years old and younger.
She reached out to The Sacred Portion in Bozeman and asked them all about the Summer of Hope program.
“They were looking to branch off into another community as long as someone would coordinate it,” Gray said.
Within months, Gray had organized Gillette’s first Summer of Hope.
That first summer in 2013, Gillette saw 11 children — six from the Congo and five from the Philippines — and Gray said that 10 were adopted. Of those, six still live in Gillette.
The one child who didn’t get adopted was from the Philippines, Gray said, and she’s still in touch. She said she recently bought him a bike, and for her 40th birthday, her family took a trip to the Philippines, where they met up with him.
In the summer of 2014, there were five children who came to Gillette for the month-long visit. All were from the Philippines, and three of them ended up getting adopted. Gray said one of the three still lives here.
That winter, two more children came, Gray said, and both were adopted.
In 2015, Summer of Hope brought five children to Gillette, and four of them were adopted. Two of them still live in Gillette.
The program took a break in 2016, but it was back in 2017 when four children came through Summer of Hope and three were adopted.
Around 2018, the program began to wane in Gillette, Gray said. Folks in Sheridan wanted to do the same thing, and Gray helped them establish a Summer of Hope of their own and “a bunch more kids found homes.”
Overall, the program’s success rate is startlingly high: 27 children have come to Gillette and 21 of them have been adopted. As of late August, one adoption was still in process due to COVID-19.
The benefits of Summer of Hope extend far beyond the families who host a child and then adopt that same child. There are some families who offer to host who have no intention of adopting but just want the children to have a chance to meet interested families.
Jamillia Petway now lives in Virginia, but when her adopted son, Joseph, came to Gillette in 2014 with Summer of Hope, she lived in North Carolina. She’s never lived in Gillette. She’s never even lived in Wyoming.
Despite the distance, Summer of Hope connected her with her son.
Gillette and beyond
The Petways were no strangers to adoption. They’d done it once before, but that first adoption was done without the benefit of Summer of Hope.
Her family’s experience not only speaks to the benefits offered by Summer of Hope compared to the traditional adoption process, but it also speaks to the broad nature of the program. It’s about more than simply getting a test run before adopting. It is that, sure, but it’s so much more.
“The family that was hosting our son was only interested in advocating for him, not adopting,” Petway said. “That’s when Haley (Gray) started looking outside of the Gillette area to try to find families for some of the children. Because we were in some groups together, that’s how I found out about some of the boys, and my son was one of them.”
Petway met her son through video calls set up by the host family, and though she couldn’t be there in person, she got a lot of the benefits that Summer of Hope provides to adoptive parents.
“It helped answer some of our questions,” Petway said. “Our son did have special needs, and I got to have greater insight. The host family encouraged us, would send us pictures, send us tidbits that they remembered, gave us updates. It was kind of like your own personal cheerleaders.”
It was September 2015 when she got to meet her son for the first time. Summer of Hope made certain parts of that easier. Small things that were also massive things just ran a little bit smoother, and for that, she couldn’t be more thankful.
A future of hope
Haley Gray can still remember the very first summer when the children came to Gillette.
“Rico was the first kid to walk through the doors, ever,” Gray said.
Rico Imus, 20, is now a freshman at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, after graduating from Thunder Basin High School last year. He’s planning to major in art education and minor in graphic design. He was also recruited to be part of the track team.
He remembers that first summer, too.
“When I stayed with my foster family, for the first day, I could not sleep because I was not used to the big bed because I never had a big soft bed,” Imus said. “I wasn’t used to the AC, the cold temperature in the room, because we never had AC in the Philippines.”
He remembers going fishing, but more importantly, he remembers who he met while fishing.
“When I followed that kid up the bridge, he introduced me to this man and this woman,” Imus said. “I just went to them and said, ‘Oh, hey guys, I have a fish here; you guys can look at it.’ The next thing I knew, I grabbed this woman’s hand.”
It’s safe to say that grab of a stranger’s hand changed his life. With that hand came a future with Cevin and Stacy Imus.
“My mom told me that’s when she realized that it was meant to be to adopt both of us, that we needed a mom and dad who would be willing to support us throughout our life,” Imus said. “That was a great memory to remember. We’d been going to a lot of parks, cookouts, getting together with other people, not realizing that the couple who was planning on adopting us was like 6 feet away from us, not knowing because we were just having fun and going with the flow.”
He remembered the end of his month-long vacation in Gillette; it was hard to leave.
“On my last day staying in the United States, I controlled my emotions because I was trying to not cry before I left,” Imus said. “My foster family cried when we left. Throughout my plane ride back from the U.S. back to the Philippines, I just had my blanket on top of me because I was crying the whole time.”
His summer visit to the U.S. had made an impression on him.
“So when we got home, for some reason, me and my brother felt a bit homesick even though that one-month vacation wasn’t permanent,” Imus said. “As kids we were just embracing the pictures and the albums and the memories and the things my foster family and friends gave me and my brother.”
He remembers being sad once he got back to the Philippines. He and his brother both cried a lot.
But then, suddenly, all of that changed.
“The office in our orphanage only called me to have a meeting,” Imus said. “They talked to me, and said, “Hey Rico, do you remember the one-month vacation? We saw that you had fun, that you made a lot of great memories and a lot of new friends. Good news, there’s a family that wants to adopt you in the same location, and you’ll be leaving this Friday.’”
Reflecting on his years in Wyoming, he remembered small joys, like seeing his first snowfall, and he remembered consequential turning points, like when his parents took him to a junior high basketball game and he met his first track coach who got him into pole vaulting.
Now, he’s a college student, first and foremost, and he sounds like countless others experiencing life away from home for the first time.
“I’ve always thought that I would be so stressed, keeping up with academics plus having a job and doing sports at the same time,” Imus said. “But having my second week here in school, in college, you would think I would miss home and my room, but I do not miss home, for some reason. I actually like my freedom here. Not in a rude way, but I know that I do take care of my academics; I try to pay attention to classes and stuff.
“With my mom and dad not texting me about my grades, not always checking on my Powerschool, since in college, that’s not a thing, I feel better. Not because they don’t have to look at my grades, but I feel better that they trust me that I will be doing my academics and do well at sports at the same time and not cause any trouble.”
The biggest celebrations of the Summer of Hope program don’t come from the memories of Imus’s past, the things left behind. No, the biggest celebrations come from how breathtakingly normal his present sounds and how full of hope his future seems.
People came out in droves this week to lament the impending federal vaccine mandates that are expected to affect Campbell County Health employees next month and may lead to a significant loss of staff.
Nearly 100 concerned citizens, hospital employees and board members packed the City Hall meeting room, some of whom held signs in the audience opposing the federal vaccine mandates that are expected to require all health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Although the organization said it is supportive of the vaccine itself, it came out decidedly against vaccine mandates for its employees even though it may not have a choice in the matter.
“To be clear, our organization is not coming out against the vaccine,” said hospital board Chairman Adrian Gerrits. “We very much feel that you all should get vaccinated, or I think a lot of us feel that way. We are not for the vaccine mandate.”
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced the vaccine mandates expected to affect millions of Americans in health care and other private-sector fields.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has not provided the details of the mandates yet, but CCH officials said they expect the orders to come through sometime in October.
Not complying with the federal mandate would put the organization’s federal license at stake, which would affect its state license, which would effectively close the hospital, said CCH Chief Financial Officer Mary Lou Tate.
About 20 people spoke against the expected vaccine mandates.
“I stand against this 100%,” said Harvey Jackson, a former chairman of the hospital board, who added that he didn’t like “any mandate that makes an employee choose a job or a vaccine that, frankly, we don’t know enough about. It’s been a year.”
“It’s not right that Biden sent us this letter and is threatening you guys with federal money or you close your doors, that’s not right either,” he added.
Jackson recommended fighting the mandate and doing so by appealing to local and state legislators.
“You are the ones that are supposed to fight for us,” he said.
One of those legislators, Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, happened to join the public comment period not long after and spoke in opposition to the mandate and general reliance on the federal government.
“Federal funding is like crack to a lot of agencies in the state and we’re addicted to it,” McKeown said. “We’re at a point now where if we stick up for employees, we’re going to lose our federal funding, because we haven’t figured out a way to get along without the federal funding.”
McKeown went on to say that the vaccine mandates are against the Wyoming constitution and that the state needs to “draw a line in the sand.”
“I would implore you, do not push this vaccine mandate forward,” he said. “It will be catastrophic.”
Trustee Alan Stuber was quick to point out to McKeown that the same Wyoming statute McKeown had previously mentioned also calls on the state to be the ones to step in.
“Which means us as a hospital board, if we try to do this alone, it’s not going to happen,” Stuber said. “I would hope in the future you would be able to help us and help guide us, as we can’t do that alone. We are going to need a lot of help.”
Stuber, with the help of the board and legal counsel, crafted a letter that the board approved to send to Biden, Gov. Mark Gordon and other legislators regarding the vaccine mandates.
McKeown said he is trying to help and is working on “three of four” bills, some of which would call for a legislative vote before accepting “any federal funding” and another to make vaccine mandates illegal.
Gerrits also responded to McKeown and said the issue is more complicated than CCH just accepting federal money. He said the organization is caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients who are receiving federal money and have health care needs.
“Even if this was only government funding they were withholding, this is literally our licensure to practice medicine in the state of Wyoming as a hospital,” Gerrits told McKeown. “Losing our federal license means we can’t operate in the state so nobody would have a job.”
CCH CEO Colleen Heeter encouraged the public to also reach out to local legislators and make public comment with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in order to voice concerns but also to slow down the process.
“It’s important for you to reach out … it’s not just maybe a religious exemption, it’s not just a medical exemption, it could also be, why wouldn’t we test for antibodies? Why wouldn’t we do that and not give somebody a choice?”
While the official details of the mandate are not yet clear, Tate said that not complying with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines once passed down would create myriad problems for the organization, including possibly losing staff in all departments.
Although there is no round projection for how many employees may quit if forced to choose between jobs and jabs, the board and administrators fear it could have a significant impact on staffing and hospital operations.
About 39% of CCH employees had been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of this week.
“We don’t know anything yet,” Gerrits told the crowd. “All we know is that it is probably coming … we’re not here to put this on you, we’re here to try to figure out how to work in the framework that we’re given. We’re in the same spot you guys are.”
A combination of health care workers and generally concerned citizens continued the public dialogue by sharing their concerns with the expected vaccine mandate.
Tessa Crohn, a CCH employee for over four years, spoke out against the mandate as well.
“Myself and others here tonight are left wondering if we will still have a job in a few months,” she said. “It seems that if this mandate occurs, CCH will be facing losing a huge portion of our staff, resulting in closing our doors, or the possibility of losing funding for Medicare and Medicaid.
“I don’t really care how you feel about the vaccine, but like many here tonight, it’s the mandates I have an issue with.”
She added that there needs to be exemptions for medical, religious and natural immunity purposes.
Many of those in the the crowd spoke of individual freedoms, constitutional rights, questioned the legality of the mandate and the motivations behind the federal government mandating it.
Alison Brady, a local physician assistant who does not work at CCH, said she helped organize some of the attendees through the organization Wyoming Freedom Keepers. A Facebook group that promoted the event, named “Stop the Mandate: Campbell County,” had more than 1,700 members as of Friday.
During her three minutes, Brady thanked the board for the letter it addressed to President Biden and said she stands from a position of medical freedom and informed consent.
“This month, you have been put in an impossible position. You are being blackmailed by our federal government,” Brady said. “They are interfering with your ability to make a decision for this community that fits with the people of this community.”
She estimated that 25% of the CCH staff would choose “termination over vaccination.”
Dr. Jessica Quinlan, an anesthesiologist for CCH, said she has worked in the hospital for about three years. At the meeting, she said the vaccine mandate goes against the ethical practice of medicine.
“I’ve been generally appalled and saddened by the state of science and medicine over the past year and a half,” she said. “I just want to reiterate that respect for patient autonomy and uncoerced consent is essential for any medical decision-making process and that this balance of power is essential to prevent abuse.”
Quinlan added that “if this is a requirement for the practice of medicine, it is not a field in which I can be a part anymore.”
Loud rounds of applause followed her speech to the board, as well as many of the other speakers that night.
Quinlan was not the only one to broach the idea of leaving CCH if the mandate comes through.
Vicki Sarver, a CCH clinical care supervisor in the maternal child unit said that 40% of her nursing staff will quit, or “be forced to end their career,” if the vaccine mandates go into place.
“We are at an inevitable place with this mandate if it’s pushed forward,” Sarver said. “Our doors will close, whether it be funding or whether it be the inability to sufficiently staff our hospital.”
Her department is not alone, she said. She said she expects each CCH department will feel similarly.
Terri Kinney, radiology manager and longtime CCH employee, said although she is vaccinated, she does not agree with the mandate. That said, she reminded the room that the mandate was not coming from the board and was over their heads.
“People need to look at their own lives, stay off social media and quit condemning everyone for whatever their choice is in life,” Kinney said. “It’s a personal choice. No one wants this mandate.”
Furthermore, she reminded the public of the other hard times the hospital is facing, in taking care of large numbers of sick patients daily.
“People are dying in our hospital halls. They’re dying in the ER,” Kinney said. “People who don’t work up there, they have no idea. They have no idea.”
Trustee Sara Hartsaw asked what the impact of staff leaving would have on the organization and operations.
“If we are forced to comply with federal mandates and we lose somewhere between 10% and 25% of our employees, how can we continue to run the operation?” Hartsaw asked.
Tate said that she began planning for those scenarios. For example, Tate said about half of the Home Medical Resources employees indicated they would quit.
About a month before the official vaccine mandate guidelines are expected to be announced, how many CCH employees may quit or what the impact would be to the organization is as unclear as the mandate guidelines themselves.
“We are truly not panicking right now because it is not, we don’t believe it’s right on our doorstep,” Heeter said.